The underdeveloped area around New Haven’s train station may soon get a little busier.
Last Thursday, New Haven won a $390,000 grant from the state of Connecticut to develop a commercial district around Union Station and strengthen the transportation systems that link it to the rest of the city. The grant, part of a $5 million state fund to jump-start transportation-oriented development, will finance a study of other small and mid-sized cities that have developed urban hubs around public transportation lines. Experts interviewed say that though the plan would likely succeed in bringing businesses to the Elm City if implemented, New Haven may face difficulty in financing the effort.
“Thriving cities are cities that build and focus their development around transportation hubs,” City Hall spokesman Adam Joseph said in an email to the News. “We happen to have a great [transportation center] — if not slightly unutilized — in the train station, and we have an opportunity to grow that area.”
Integral to the city’s plan is the transformation of Union Station from an isolated commuting point to a destination in itself, according to Jim Travers, the city’s director of transportation, traffic and parking. To begin this process, the city intends to add a second parking garage with 1,500 new spaces for the station.
For those who do not own cars, Travers said, the city is looking to expand bus routes in the area. City Hall is also evaluating the possibility of constructing a streetcar system that would connect Union Station to downtown, the biomedical district and Science Park. Still, over 8,000 commuters travel through Union Station each day, and the city believes that it is not optimizing Union Station to its fullest potential, Travers said. As a result, City Hall will allocate funds towards commercializing the train station as well as its immediate surroundings in the long term. This would include revitalizing the station’s street-facing parking spaces into storefronts and developing more retail, office space and apartment complexes nearby.
The city’s ultimate goal, Travers said, is to extend downtown to encompass the station so that commuters can live within walking distance to it. This will create an opportunity for significant business development, Travers said.
“Imagine how much more pleasant your walk would be from Union Station to downtown if you could walk by an extended downtown environment,” Travers said. “We see the development of Union Station as a big, vibrant opportunity for the city.”
This approach has worked in many other densely populated small cities, according to Ken Gillingham, assistant professor of economics at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies who specializes in transportation and energy. Still, he stressed that the high cost of such a venture would be difficult to meet without state or federal funding, an uncertainty in today’s political climate.
“It is an ambitious plan that would require a significant amount of buy-in from stakeholders,” Gillingham said. “It remains to be seen whether the backing can come together.”
Douglas Rae, a professor at the School of Management and former chief administrative officer of New Haven, said the state should have allotted more to the city in comparison to grants it awarded to other municipalities. Grants awarded to Hartford and New Britain — for the development of a nine-mile bus path between the two cities — were twice the amount of New Haven’s, he said.
“Transit-oriented development only works where there is a fairly high degree of population density — and the only dense part is along this Metro-North [Railroad] line,” Rae said. “I think the priorities are way out of whack.”
In addition to New Haven, 10 other municipalities received grants from the state Thursday.